Mythopoeia

Continuing with rambling on the topic of my exploration of pagan movement history, another critical concept: mythopoeia. The word means, literally, “myth-making”, and it is one of the near inescapable traits of at least the origin points of pagan religions. (I am told that it was still a going term and concept among pagans when I was a kid, but it seems to have dropped out of the mainstream of public pagan consciousness since then. At the very least, I haven’t seen it hugely emphasised.)

Mythopoeia has never really stopped; there is a constant flow of interpretation and reinterpretation present in understandings of sacred stories, and the development of new ones. However, mythopoesis as a significant literary phenomenon emerges from the same process of disenchantment that caused so much else, as a deliberate attempt to re-enchant and recapture that sense of magical world in some fashion.

In the early crucible of what’s technically called “secondary world fantasy” – fantastic fiction set in an imagined location – there was a great deal of active discussion of mythopoeia. Obviously, a world other than the “real” world would require its own mythologies, particular to conditions there, and a number of different authors approached that puzzle in different ways.

Some of the seminal work was of course done by J. R. R. Tolkien, who was, in addition to being one of the luminaries of fantasy literature, an expert in the words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W, a scholar of early English literature, a devoted husband, and, quite critically, a devout Catholic. Tolkien appears to have seen his creative work as aspirational, holding that a humankind created in the image of God could not help but create, as God created. He had an argument with another Inkling – C. S. Lewis, whose complex navigation to Christianity and the composition of apologia was influenced heavily by his friend – about the significance and nature of mythology.

Lewis appears to have argued that myths were “lies breathed through silver”, a sentiment that Tolkien objected to heartily. He composed a poem – “Philomythus to Misomythus aka Mythopoeia” – and addressed it “To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.”

In the poem, Tolkien talks of many things, but one of them is the essentiality of enchantment. One stanza reads:

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

Here, he comes back to this idea of relational, poetic experience of the world, which he considers foundational to true understanding. Tolkien responds to a world increasingly devoted to Fact with a crying-out to Meaning, and meaningful connection, meaningful relationship.

One can find a similar sentiment in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, which is of course one of my go-to works of fiction for core principles of mythology:

What would have happened if you hadn’t saved him?

“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”

No.

“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”

The sun would not have risen.

“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?

A mere flaming ball of gas would have illuminated the world.

Susan, the mortal speaker, objects to this, and Death continues his argument. Susan says to him that he’s suggesting that humans need these fantasies, these lies, to make life bearable, and Death says instead that these stories, these narratives, are the essence of humanity – that believing in stories is preparation for believing in greater fictions, such as justice, mercy, or duty. When Susan is outraged, Death responds:

You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet-

Death waved a hand.

And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some…  some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

Humanity is a narrative process. Even if we do not tell stories about gods, we tell stories: about ourselves, about the world. We justify our actions. We explain, we compose apologetics, we invent and reinvent justice and justification, we compose ourselves. “No one is a villain in their own story”, goes the saying, and so we can meet and interact with the stories other people have about themselves, and that is how we can get to know them. Some people’s stories are more truthful than others. Some more profound. But they are all made up of stories.

As narrative-creating beings, of course when humans turned towards reinventing pagan religion, it came with inventing narratives. Some of them were historical fantasies, but many many more were mythologies, reaching towards the numinous, trying to express something about the world. Some of those myths were new inventions, speaking of new gods, or new ways of relating to gods.

Others were necessary adaptations to a modern world. The Industrial Revolution and other factors which led to the emergence of modern paganism were seismic shifts in human understanding of the world and how it worked, and raised many complicated questions. Consider: what god(s) governs the radio, and why? New inventions, new creations, all of them transforming the world in fundamental ways, and we did not have the stories to put these things in context, to make their meaning mesh with our world. There needed to be new stories.

Even for those people who were satisfied with their relationships with old gods, for some there was the question of where those gods had been, whether or not they were upset by the gaps in worship, or how to relate to them outside of their traditional stomping grounds. (A number of years ago I wrote a poem – “Seth Beyond the Borders of Egypt” – which was a re-mythologisation of the interactions between Set and Wesir (Osiris) fitted to a landscape in which there was no regular river flood.) We know the ancients did much the same thing – there exists an ancient example of Egyptian soldiers encountering a snowstorm and promptly recognising Set there – and we know that they also syncretised, borrowed, and adopted the gods of the locations to which they travelled.

This process of composition of myth is a process of re-enchantment. I know pagans whose mythopoesis has been rooted in ancient stories, trying to connect them to the modern. I know pagans who have started in a tradition and engaged deeply with those stories. I know pagans who have blended ancient and modern in complex and intertwining ways. I know pagans who have related to the stories of their own culture and found enchantment there. I know pagans who have composed their own myths, discovered their own gods, because the gods of the world they know speak more loudly than the gods of a world on the far side of that schism.

I know very few pagans who do not engage with mythopoeia at some level.

I, like Tolkien, perceive a human responsibility to partake of the nature of divinity, to create and co-create and make the world in the divine image as best I can with my limited power. Or, to quote a bit more of his poem:

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

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